A beautiful (adj.) knife, the mind: Barbara Hamby

Poet Barbara Hamby

Poet Barbara Hamby

The ante-penultimate poet on our reading list is Barbara Hamby. Married to fellow poet David Kirby, Hamby was born in New Orleans (just down the block from here, you could say) and raised in Hawaii. I thoroughly enjoyed All Night Lingo Tango (2009). It’s fresh and alive and spunky, as well as full of references a movie buff would swoon over. Now I’m no movie buff, but I recognize the names and can appreciate what she’s doing here.

Ava Gardner

Silver screen beauty Ava Gardner, 1950s

Clearly, the language of movies — noir and otherwise — is a language Hamby speaks fluently. But the collection reaches out beyond that silver screen cosmos and into small-screen pop culture with mentions of the Jay Leno, Barry Manilow, Joan Crawford & co. The collection also contains a good number of persona poems that allow characters like Betty Boop and Olive Oyl to speak frankly for once, about the treatment of woman and about quantum theory. (Remember that Ashbery poem?)

AlicetheGoonThe collection — slender as it is — covers a wide spectrum. Reading it, you will also run into Nietzsche (“Nietzsche Explains the Ubermensch to Lois Lane“), Lysistrata (who gives the ancient gods a piece of her mind), Jane Austen, Caliban, Puck (“Punk Puck or Robin Goodfellow with Fender Stratocaster“), Ulysses, Yorick, and a number of other more or less familiar literary characters. Each voice is distinct, even though the poems themselves are often quite short.

The conversational, colloquial tone makes this a fun read, like when “Ulysses Talks with Freud about the Underworld” and the poem begins “Underarm is more like it” (47) or when “Titus Woes Titania” by telling her “Tight ass, I like that in a woman” (46). Lysistrata — very much in keeping with the character in the play, in my opinion, asks, “Mars, are you listening, you jerk?” (38). In fact, in addition to Freud and Heidegger & co, you’ll run into quite a few old Greeks in new contexts.

I think my favorite must be “Friday Slams Crusoe” (32). Of course Elizabeth Bishop’s Crusoe poem comes to mind, “Crusoe in England” (from Geography III) Well, Hamby’s Friday sets the record straight, once and for all: “For Christ’s sake, he was a bum […] I juggled all the work while he lazed around like a lizard and took long naps or read under the palms.”

Vintage photograph of a woman reading.

Vintage photograph of a woman reading.

The language in All Night Lingo Tango is enjoyable. Even though a considerable part of the collection is made up of sonnets, the form does not push itself into the foreground, and Hamby has lots of fun with her words. I’m thinking of using “Why Do Mambo” or “Mambo Cadillac” to teach my literature students about rhyme and the ways it can happen, because the poems are just begging to be read out loud. There’s a lot of rhyming but it’s done in such a way that it becomes amusing rather than annoying, and I think it would work well in the classroom.

Another thing I noticed is a good number of Yiddish words and phrases — not in every poem, but there are a few. I wonder if this is a New York thing or if it’s a Hamby thing. I was reminded of Lehman, who weaves his Jewish heritage into his poetry in different ways, more by topic and association, where Hamby uses more language play. Some of the words and expressions I noted: dummkopf, kibbitz, keister, meshuga, shvartze, platzen, putz, schnozz, meine kleine friend, torta, all of which I had no trouble understanding, but was nonetheless surprised to see. While I’m bilingually fluent, my brain still bucks when it comes across bits of text that are both German and English at the same time. :)If you’re not familiar with some of these words, or are curious about English words with Yiddish origins, check out this Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_words_of_Yiddish_origin.

I do like the use of ‘exotic’ or ‘foreign’ or ‘less common’ words in poetry, simply because it makes the reading more interesting. (I don’t know that the words would strike any New Yorker as exotic, foreign, or less common, or even anyone who was a native speaker, but bear with me, I’m neither.) There is also some French, which again ties Hamby to some of the other New York poets — there seems to be a great fascination with Paris. Among Americans in general, and New York poets in particular. (Collins also talks about Paris in his collection, as do several others.) (Interestingly enough, there’s even a mental health diagnosis called “Paris Syndrome” — being disappointed when actually getting to Paris. Click the picture below to go to a short article about this.)


Paris, photo by Elliott Erwing / Magnum Photos

All in all, a lovely collection. I think I’ll come back to this for teaching as well as for my own pleasure reading.


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.


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